“Armed Resistance, Go Underground”German Officials Fear Increase in Pandemic-Fueled Radicalism in Wake of Murder
A man arrested for shooting and killing a 20-year-old gas station cashier last week appears to have been influenced by far-right ideologies and conspiracy theories. Security officials worry that a scene that denies the coronavirus is growing increasingly radical.By Maik Baumgärtner, Jörg Diehl, Tobias Großekemper, Roman Höfner, Max Hoppenstedt, Roman Lehberger und Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt24.09.2021
A neighbor of the man who shot a gas station cashier for demanding that he wear a face mask described him as “fairly normal,” someone you could talk to. It was only when it came to getting vaccinated against the coronavirus that Mario N. would “flip out.” “Three-hundred thousand people have already died from vaccinations,” N. told him, says the neighbor. “That shit’ll kill you too.” Among “Querdenker,” a grassroots movement of people in Germany who oppose vaccinations and restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, that mis conception is one of the most widespread conspiracy theories around.ANZEIGEHungerstreikende in Berlin: Scholz soll Klimanotstand ausrufenEin Angebot vonDER SPIEGEL 39/2021
Another neighbor, Pia K., who runs a cosmetics studio, can also recall Mario N. freaking out several times. She recalls how he berated one of her customers because he didn’t like the way they had parked. During the pandemic, he then picked a fight with another nearby resident about wearing a mask. She says Mario N. was strictly against it. “He has a very short fuse,” says the beautician.
Such descriptions are making it possible to gradually draw a more accurate picture of the man responsible for a murder that shocked Germany just days before Sunday’s general election. The slaying is believed to be the first in the country by a coronavirus pandemic denier.
On Saturday, at 7:45 p.m., IT specialist Mario N., 49, entered an Aral gas station in the city of Idar-Oberstein in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. He wanted to buy beer, but the cashier turned him away for not wearing a mask. The 20-year-old college student was working at the gas station part time to earn a bit of cash. An hour-and-a-half later, N. returned, walked up to the cash register and shot Alexander W. in the head with a Smith & Wesson revolver. During his interrogation, Mario N. said that he opposes measures for containing the coronavirus. He said he wanted to set an example.
An image of murder suspect Mario N. from a security camera at the Aral gas station in Idar-Oberstein Foto: Polizei Wiesbaden
It will likely take weeks before the investigation is completed. Criminal psychologists warn that the motives behind such an insane act are complex. But there is growing evidence that Mario N. was influenced by radical, right-wing ideologues and conspiracy theory peddlers in the Querdenker scene. This is also apparent in the digital trail the shooter left behind on social networks.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party spoke of a “cold-blooded murder” and called on citizens to strictly reject any form of “pandemic extremism.” Olaf Scholz, the front runner in the campaign for chancellor with the center-left Social Democratic Party, said that the “Querdenker” were partly to blame for having “fomented a climate in which this act became possible in this man’s head.”
With the murder in Idar-Oberstein, what experts have been warning about for months appears to have materialized: The danger emanating from the corona-denier scene has clearly increased. At the beginning of September, Thomas Haldenwang, the president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the German intelligence agency responsible for monitoring extremism, warned that deadly violence was a realistic possibility.
The number of participants taking part in Querdenker protests has decreased recently, but the hardcore members still with the movement have grown more aggressive. An “increasingly militant and more radical tone” has been registered, especially on the internet, one police analysis states.
“Armed resistance, go underground,” one Querdenker wrote in a Telegram message that also caught the attention of the security authorities. “The zombie robot henchmen of the Merkel state have to be held accountable for their betrayal of the people,” ranted another. Also on Telegram, an anti-vaxxer wrote: “It’s time to arm yourself. Not just mentally.”
Authorities Worry About Possible Querdenker Terrorism
Due to the lack of success of the protests, Torsten Voss, head of the Hamburg state chapter of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, says that a small part of the movement is “now radicalizing in the fight against an imagined oppression.”
Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is observing a “delegitimization of the state, open calls for violence and the justification of an overthrow of the state.” Authorities in Germany also aren’t ruling out the possibility of domestic terrorism on the part of the Querdenker.
Signs of the growing potential for violence were on displays as early as last autumn, when arsonists threw incendiary devices at a building of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s center for disease control, in Berlin. In January, suspected corona deniers tampered with a high-speed rail line in Bavaria, forcing a train to make an emergency stop. And in Delmenhorst, in Lower Saxony, a man hurled a Molotov cocktail at the city hall in March, an expression of his “dissatisfaction with the corona rules.””We have been observing a spiral of escalation for months, even calls for murder on social networks. At some point, words become deeds.”
Stephan Kramer, president of the Thuringia state chapter of the domestic intelligence agency
In the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, pandemic deniers with the “Reichsbürger,” a group that rejects the legitimacy of the German government, sent out a missive stating; “Every real man has to be ready to kill such slaves of Satan.” The reference was to officials responsible for measures aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus. A regional newspaper in North Rhine-Westphalia, meanwhile, received a threatening letter stating that it’s editorial offices would be “blown up” if it didn’t start running stories written to the liking of the conspiracy theorists. A few days ago, unidentified perpetrators carried out an arson attack on a vaccination center in the town of Eich in Saxony. In Berlin, meanwhile, someone set fire to a tent set up for administering coronavirus tests in front of an IKEA store.
“The murder in Idar-Oberstein didn’t come out of nowhere,” says Stephan Kramer, the president of the state chapter of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Thuringia. “We have been observing a spiral of escalation for months, even calls for murder on social networks,” he says. “At some point, words become deeds.” His counterpart in the state of Baden-Württemberg, Beate Bube – who at the end of 2020 became the first head of a domestic intelligence agency in Germany to place parts of the corona denial scene under official observation – sees events as affirmation of that decision. “Many extremist conspiracy myths, such as those spread by the ‘Querdenker,’ convey hostility to the state, anti-Semitism and, in some cases, racism,” Bube says. “They create a climate in society for serious crimes, including violence.”
Even the murder at the gas station last Saturday doesn’t appear to have triggered any rethinking among the more hard-core conspiracy theorists. If you peruse the internet channels where the Querdenker, Reichsbürger and right-wing extremists tend to meet, it doesn’t take long to find those who are celebrating the deed. “Finally, tangible resistance to the irrational mask insanity,” one wrote on YouTube. “The shooter is not to blame in the slightest.” Another commented: “Anyone who forces me to wear a mask is complicit in all this insanity.”
For Elmar May, the head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Rhineland-Palatinate, statements like these are further evidence of the “proximity to violence” in parts of the protest movement.
In a development echoing the fight against Islamist terrorism, Germany’s security authorities are also receiving tips from intelligence agencies in other countries. German investigators, for example, were tipped off by the FBI in the United States that radical corona deniers in Germany and Poland were exchanging ideas on Facebook about building explosive devices – possibly for attacks on vaccination centers.
Links to gun shops can also be found in some of the chats on the scene. One Querdenker follower even wrote that people who are not in possession of a gun license should resort to other means. “Buying a crossbow is legal,” the person writes.
German security authorities have ramped up their internet surveillance efforts since the assassination of Walter Lübcke, the district president of Kassel, by a right-wing extremist in 2019, and the deadly attacks in Halle and Hanau. But senior officials admit that they are only able to track a fraction of the hate messages. The sheer volume is unmanageable, they say. An additional factor is the unwillingness of some providers to cooperate, particularly Telegram, which officially operates out of Dubai. German investigators also have little hope that they are going to get any support there. A letter of warning demanding that Telegram comply with German laws against internet hatred couldn’t even be delivered on the first attempt.
“I Look Forward To the Next War”
Neither the Office for the Protection of the Constitution nor the police had the Idar-Oberstein shooter on their radar. It was only after the shooting at the gas station that investigators began examining Mario N.’s social media profiles. They say they have since secured massive amounts of digital evidence and data.
On Twitter, where Mario N. presumably wrote under a pseudonym until two years ago, he followed extreme right-wing accounts, especially radicals within the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. In his posts, he portrayed himself as a former CDU supporter, who had turned away from the party because of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies. He parroted common right-wing narratives, spoke of “fictional climate change” and warned of a “global seizure of power” by anti-fascists.
In his fight against a political left that he alleges rule the world, he apparently got carried away with violent fantasies. “I look forward to the next war,” N. wrote, probably in the fall of 2019. “My muscles are toned, my mind is focused. Mercy to those who have brought about this situation.”
It’s possible that Mario N. saw his fears confirmed with the restrictions imposed during the pandemic. It’s the requirement to wear a mask that appears to have bothered him most. Last year, N. wrote on LinkedIn that his wife worked in retail and had been forced to wear a mask. And that her restricted breathing was causing her to have headaches and fatigue.”Insanity. Pure insanity.”
His profile also shows that he has liked posts from users who suspect there are sinister forces behind the coronavirus measures. One Querdenker posted that she wasn’t interested in hearing criticism from the government “and other powers.” “Where are the overcrowded hospitals with corona patients?” the woman asked. Mario N. gave the posting a thumbs up.
He also liked a video posted by German physician Sucharit Bhakdi, one of the most prominent figures in the corona protest movement. Bhakdi has downplayed the virus with pseudo-scientific arguments, and he also attracted attention recently with anti-Semitic remarks.
Mario N.’s single family home in Idar-Oberstein is located directly below a major road. It’s an older building, with weeds running rampant in the stone front yard. A surveillance camera is mounted next to the front door, and two windows are secured with iron bars.
The self-employed software developer lived here like a hermit, says neighbor Pia K., who adds that she seldom saw any visitors. He spent most of his time sitting at his computer on the ground floor, she says, and that the light was often on at night. She says she first became concerned after the “incident with the parents happened.”
Last March, Mario N.’s father first shot his wife before then turning the gun on himself in the village of Herrstein, about 15 kilometers away. The mother survived, seriously injured, but the father died. N. reportedly told police that he believes there was a connection between the deadly crime and his parents’ corona-induced isolation.
The Aral gas station in Idar-Oberstein has become a makeshift memorial in recent days. The ground is strewn with flowers, with candles flickering among them. Photos of murdered cashier Alex W. have been placed on a table, with goodbye letters and a small plaster angel next to them. A customer walks out of the gas station and stops in front of the memorial.
“Insanity,” the man mumbles. “Pure insanity.”